GED Social Studies Practice Test: World War II

The Depression, which also struck Europe, spurred the growth of dictatorships (Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, at the height of the Depression) and fascist governments (such as Spain). By the end of the decade, Europe was at war — only 20 years after the “war to end all wars.”

Germany, defeated and broken after World War I, rearmed under Hitler and became a menace to world peace. Japan’s militaristic government seized Manchuria in 1931 and in 1937 invaded China. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Spain’s democratically elected government was overthrown in 1939.The League of Nations — which was born out of the Versailles Treaty — did nothing.

The United States, enmeshed in its own problems, remained firmly isolationist in the 1930s. Many people joined the “America First Committee,” which advocated a hands-off policy, arguing that problems at home — not international troubles — were the prime concern of Americans.

From 1935 to 1937 the U.S. Congress passed several Neutrality Acts, which were meant to: (1) prevent the sale of weapons to nations at war; (2) ban loans to nations at war; and (3) allow the sale of non-military goods to nations that were at war on a strict “cash-and-carry” basis. The U.S. did not want to become involved in Europe’s darkening situation.

President Roosevelt watched in alarm as Europe deteriorated, but promised Americans that the U.S. would remain neutral. He proposed that the U.S. and the world community should “quarantine” (isolate) aggressor nations, but he did not pledge the use of American force to achieve such a goal. Still, isolationists attacked the president for his concerns about world affairs.

In 1939, the neutrality laws were changed. Countries at war could purchase military supplies from the United States, but on a “cash-and-carry” basis. Arms and ammunition had to be paid for in cash and carried on the buyer’s ships. This trade in military goods helped to lift the U.S. economy.

In 1940, with the possibility of war on the horizon, President Franklin Roosevelt broke the precedent (tradition) of a president serving only two terms. Saying it was too dangerous for a new president to learn the job in a time of peril he ran for — and won — a third term.

Despite the U.S. neutrality, the nation quietly took steps to rearm. The Army and Navy budgets were increased, and in 1940 enacted a draft (the Selective Service Act). Men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register for the draft, and the size of the Army was increased to 1.2 million men in a little over a year.

When war broke out in September 1939 (Germany invaded Poland and soon France and England were embroiled in the war), the U.S. looked on with alarm. In 1940, it agreed to lend old ships to Britain (which was fighting for its life due to Hitler’s highly effective air force and navy) in return for the use of Britain’s naval bases in the Caribbean. This was Roosevelt’s way of helping Britain without getting into the fight.

In 1941, the Lend-Lease Act brought and end to America’s formal neutrality. Instead of a cash-and-carry policy for military goods, it allowed England to purchase military goods on credit. President Roosevelt suggested that this was similar to lending your neighbor a garden house when his house was on fire, but many Americans were enraged that the country seemed to be inching into a war on the side of the Allies (England, France, and Russia).


Relations with Japan Deteriorate

In the 1930s, the U.S. looked on with alarm as Japan, under the control of a militaristic government, invaded Manchuria and then, in 1937, launched a bloody and brutal assault on China. Atrocities were committed, and Americans reacted in horror.

In 1940, Japan joined the Axis Powers — Italy and Germany. Japan invaded Indonesia (a Dutch colony), French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam), and seemed to threaten the main American possession in the area, the Philippine Islands.

After Japan joined the Axis Powers, the U.S. prohibited the sale of scrap iron and oil (crucial to energy-poor Japan, which had no coal or oil resources of its own). Japan had only an 18-month supply on hand, and without oil, its army and navy would grind to a halt.

As 1941 wore on, relations deteriorated. The U.S. froze Japanese bank assets (deposits) in the U.S. it seemed clear the two nations were on a collision course. The U.S. began to beef up its defenses.


Pearl Harbor – December 7, 1941

Japan believed the U.S. would enter the war on the side of the Allies, and it believed that if it struck the first blow, the U.S. Navy would be so crippled that Japan would have time to pump oil from Dutch Indonesia and other sources. It began to plan a secret attack.

Early on the morning of December 7, 1941 — a Sunday — Japanese planes launched from aircraft carriers (a military weapon developed in the 1920s and 1930s) attacked the U.S. Pacific headquarters at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Dozens of ships — including battleships — were anchored in the harbor, and most sailors were still asleep when the attack began at 7 a.m. With deadly accuracy, the Japanese planes attacked America’s Pacific fleet and nearby airfields. Eight battleships and 11 other ships were sunk or badly damaged, killing 2,300 soldiers and sailors.

When the news reached the U.S., everybody was in shock. No one believed Japan — which was perceived to be composed of racially inferior “Japs” — could inflict such damage on the mighty U.S.

On December 8 — “a date which will live in infamy,” according to President Roosevelt — the U.S. declared war on Japan. As part of its treaty obligations, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the U.S. After years of tension and build-up, the U.S. was now in the war. Roosevelt, once the savior of the American economy, was now a war president.

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Mobilizing the Economy

The U.S. was not in a position to fight in 1941, and was still recovering from the Great Depression. But we were in a war, and it was imperative that the government organize the economy in order to fight a two-front war.

Almost every industry was converted to military purposes. The automobile manufacturers stopped making cars and began to build trucks, tanks, and airplanes. Massive aviation centers arose in the American Southwest (because of the mild climate and lack of rainfall). Textile companies stopped making clothes and churned out uniforms. Metal-working firms made shells and ammunition.

The government organized a number of agencies to manage the economy and coordinate production. Consumer prices were frozen (to prevent inflation), and key goods needed for the war effort — such as sugar, meat, and coffee — were rationed. Since most men between 18 and 45 were drafted, women occupied jobs at all levels in the war industries — assembling planes, making ammunition, and building tanks. Bosses found women to be cheerful, careful and hard-working. There were also many more jobs available for African-Americans.

Two years into the war, unemployment was a distant memory — anyone who needed a job could find one, and the industrial output of the U.S. soared. Much like the North in the Civil War (see Chapter 3), the ability to make goods for war would be the key to success. In 1944, the American economy produced twice as much war material as the three Axis powers combined.

Unions did their part, promising not to strike. The last thing the U.S. needed while arming itself was labor trouble.


Propaganda and Public Opinion

Even those who had argued for American isolationism before the war were now enthusiastic supporters of the effort to defeat the Axis Powers. The Office of War Information put out propaganda and education materials such as pamphlets, books, and films. Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series of films explained the war aims in simple terms. Morale was high, and people were generally accepting of the need to ration supplies, go without their usual luxuries, and work hard. A common saying was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Cloth and wardrobe materials were in short supply. Women had to give up nylon and silk stockings. Men’s suits had narrower lapels and no cuffs. Everything was directed toward victory. To save money on food costs, many people planted “Victory Gardens.” Gasoline was almost impossible to obtain, and most people carpooled or used public transportation.


Financing the War

The U.S. government sold “Victory Bonds,” which were enthusiastically purchased by the American public. Income taxes were also increased, and the U.S. borrowed over $300 billion. No matter what it cost, the U.S. was determined to win.


Interning the Japanese

While America was fighting Germans and Italians, whose peoples were white, a special racial prejudice was reserved for “Japs.” It was the Japanese, after all, who had launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Out of fear of sabotage — and outright racism — over 100,000 Japanese-Americans (most of them American citizens born in the U.S.) were removed from their homes on the West Coast and placed in “internment camps” deep within the U.S. This move was upheld by the Supreme Court as a military necessity. It was not until the 1980s that a formal apology, and financial compensation for the hardship Japanese-Americans endured, was issued.


The Battlegrounds

With the Pacific Fleet crippled and Japan on an aggressive course (it captured the Philippines, an American colony, and the British colonies of Burma and Singapore and was threatening India), the United States — in a two-front war — decided to concentrate first on pushing back the Japanese.

Using a strategy of “island-hopping,” American forces moved closer and closer to the islands of Japan. This came at the terrible price; the Japanese were superb and stubborn fighters, and casualties on both sides were horrific. A series of fierce naval engagements eventually eliminated the Japanese naval threat.

Toward the end of the war, Japanese suicide bombers in airplanes — the Kamikaze (“divine wind”) threatened American ships.

As in World War I, the U.S. carefully built up its forces before invading Europe. In June, 1944, working with the British, the U.S. invaded the continent with an amphibious landing on the beaches of northern France. This was known as D-Day. The Allied forces moved east, closing in on Berlin, while Russian forces moved west. In April, 1945, the Russians and the American forces met at the Rhine River. In early May, Germany surrendered. The Americans also encountered the horrific concentration camps in which the Germans had murdered six million Jews.

The U.S. then turned its attention to finishing the job in Japan. It feared that an invasion of the four main Japanese islands would be necessary. In early 1945, the American Air Force firebombed major Japanese cities, killing tens of thousands.


A War of Technology

Radar and sonar were first used in the Second World War. Radar, first employed by the British, allowed an armed force to determine the altitude and direction of planes coming to attack. Sonar was used to locate and destroy submarines. Other new technologies included pressurized aircraft, which could fly well out of the range of antiaircraft guns, improved bombing methods, and even the use of the jet engine. Penicillin, an antibiotic used to treat infection, was first used in the war, saving countless lives.

The most significant technological development was the atomic bomb. Since the discovery of fission in the late 1930s, nations realized that if atoms could be split, enormous energy would be released. In 1942, the U.S. began a concerted effort, known as the Manhattan Project, to develop a deliverable atomic weapon. Over 100,000 people worked on the project, which cost $2 billion. When the first bomb was tested in July, 1945, the U.S. had a weapon it hoped would end the war.

On August 6, 1945, an American bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb had an explosive power of 18,000 tons of TNT. About 70,000 people were killed outright, and thousands more died in the aftermath of radiation sickness. Three days later, an American plane dropped a second bomb, on the city of Nagasaki. The Japanese were stunned at the scope of the destruction. All told, about 250,000 people died as a result of the two bombings. One week later, Japan surrendered.



The Second World War was over. Over 300,000 Americans had been killed and another 800,000 wounded.Germany and Japan lay in ruins. The Soviet Union’s army had occupied most of Eastern Europe (and wouldn’t leave), and the United States, after spending over $300 billion, was unquestionably the world’s most powerful nation.

But while the actual fighting was over, new postwar tensions would emerge, resulting in the birth of the Cold War.


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